How to Tell If Your Eco-Friendly Napkins Are Worth It

Do you use recycled paper towels? Rags? Bleached napkins? Here’s how to tell which option is the greenest — the answer may surprise you

I stopped using paper towels and napkins several years ago. It was one of those decisions that I’ve always felt really good about, to the point of semi-smugness. With a planet in peril (literally, no dramatic exaggeration necessary) sometimes our perceived insignificance means we don’t do the little things, because we think, “What difference can one person make?” But as local legend Pete Seeger once pointed out, it’s a million little things that will make the difference.

But lately I’ve had a tough time staying on top of any laundry (in part because I no longer have a washing machine, and in part because I have no time), and so the rags have become a bit of a nuisance — they smell bad, they get moldy quick, and when I run out I find myself wishing I had some paper towels. So I’ve gotten halfway to convincing myself to make the switch back to paper towels: I’m a single, working mom; I have to cut corners somewhere! But my conscience seems to be putting its foot down and I can’t seem to pull the trigger. To ensure I’m making the most sound decision I can (yes, these are the things that keep me up at night) I decided to look into which is actually greener, soup to nuts. Here’s what I found:

  • If they are made from organic cotton or a natural fiber like hemp, washed only when really dirty and with other clothes, on cold (and then line dried), then reusable napkins and rags hands-down are the most environmentally friendly. You start losing points if you wash them after every use, with hot water, or in small little loads.
  • The blinding white paper towels and single-use napkins that fill most grocery store shelves really are that bad. They’re the ones made directly from trees (“virgin fiber”), and are whitened using chlorine gas which is toxic to not only the environment but our bodies. And they account for one-third of all landfill waste. One site says that 1.4 million trees would be saved if every household in the US replaced just one roll of white paper towels with recycled ones.
  • Chlorine-free, 100-percent recycled paper towels and napkins (the brown ones) are an acceptable alternative to Brawny. Their manufacture saves tons of paper waste from landfills, and since they’re compostable, they can bypass the landfill entirely. If those aren’t an option (though almost every store sells Seventh Generation these days), look for partially recycled products that use alternative bleaching (“process chlorine free”).

With all this in mind, I think I’ll try keeping some recycled paper towels on hand for when I know laundry won’t get done for ages. Since they’re compostable (as is their roll), I won’t have a mini-conscience attack every time I toss one out. It’s a compromise I can surely live with.

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